Inside Indonesia’s Secret School for the Children of Terrorism

Families behind Surabaya attacks were friends, police say

With a neatly organised box of pencils, an eight-year-old girl sits at her school desk, carefully colouring in pictures of animals.

Smiling and chatting to her classmates as she draws, there’s no indication of her dream to one day become a suicide bomber.

In May, her mother and father sat her on their motorbike before riding to the Surabaya Police Headquarters and blowing themselves up.

“Ayu” (not her real name) survived the blast and now attends a secret school for the children of Indonesian terrorism.

“[Ayu] is happy now. She’s a smart kid,” her social worker Sri Musfiah said.

“She joins in a lot of the activities, she has many friends and she greets our staff whenever she sees them.”

That’s a dramatic change from when Ayu first arrived at the school, nursing a broken arm from the bombing and harbouring radical aspirations instilled by her late parents.

On the day they died, they gave no hint of the deed they were plotting, telling Ayu they were all going for a ride to deliver some coconut rice.

Ayu doesn’t yet understand her parents intended to kill her as well. In fact, she thought her dad saved her from the blast.

“When it happened she felt that she was pushed by her father. That’s why she was thrown off the bike,” Sri said.

Secret school to deradicalise students

Ayu is one of 11 children undergoing deradicalisation at the school. One of her classmates, a seven-year-old boy, lost his father in a shoot-out with counter-terrorism police.

Three other students became orphans when a bomb their father was building accidentally detonated in their Surabaya apartment, the same day the city’s police HQ was targeted.

In another classroom, a 16-year-old bomb-maker and a wannabe suicide bomber, also 16, were mixed in with street brawlers, thieves and child prostitutes.

The radical children were considered victims at the school. Their identities were kept secret, even from their classmates.

“They would be seen by the other children as just a fellow problem child,” head of the facility Neneng Haryani said.

“This is to ensure their safety … these kids should grow like any other kids, no different.”

The location of the school was a secret. Several undercover guards patrol its boundaries, with dozens more on hand should an incident occur. So far 102 children considered radical have come through the school. Most of them have now returned to their communities, having undergone rehabilitation.

“The most important thing here is the process of building trust with them,” Neneng said.

“With this trust, they start to open up, pouring their hearts out and revealing their problems to the social workers.”

Once trust was established, the children were encouraged to listen to music, play games and make friends, activities that were often denied to them by their families.

“We teach them facts about Indonesia, that it consists of many tribes, many religions … [and that] we have to tolerate others despite their religion. We cannot force our will onto other people,” Sri said.

Neneng believes the fact many of the teachers were women was a fortunate coincidence, because the children see them as motherly figures.

“We have to create a lively atmosphere. [Teach them] to love life and that going to heaven doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself,” she said.

In just two months, the program appears to be working for little Ayu from Surabaya.

“When she was asked [what she wants to be] the first time, she said she wanted to be a martyr,” Sri said.

“[Now] she wants to become a teacher.



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